If you mention Napa in your office or on social media you are likely to get opinions from everyone on the best wineries, the best tours, the best restaurants. And overwhelmingly you will probably hear “Don’t go there, that one is too touristy”.
While going to some smaller, less known wineries should be on your list, if you are a first timer in Napa you should also plan to visit some of the iconic spots and wineries. I mean, you would not go to Paris for the first time and not visit the Eiffel tower right? With that said, Napa really does have something for everyone, even if you do not drink wine. So if you are planning your first trip to the Valley, like we did for our 10 year anniversary, here are some things to consider:
Best Time to Visit
Summer is a popular month but it also comes with heat, crowds, and higher hotel prices. Therefore, if you can avoid it, do so. In my opinion the best seasons to visit are Fall (Sept/October) or Spring (March/April). The crowds are much more manageable and the weather is comfortable. During the fall you can experience “crush” time. This is when the grapes are harvested and yes crushed to be turned into wine. And during the Spring it is Mustard Season. This is when the mustard plants are in bloom and it is quite beautiful to see all the bright yellow flowers. We visited late March as this was our anniversary and my husbands birthday. Weather was perfect except for one day of rain, we had no crowds, and were able to see some of the mustards in bloom.
If you have searched the internet, then you already know you can get accommodations from as little as $89 and as high as over $1000 per night. You can even use some points if you want to stay at a chain hotel. Your decision will come down to budget, what you wish to experience, and location. I am pretty frugal ,but still wanted to stay in a nice B&B and I wanted to be centrally located. With this criteria in mind the locations I looked at were:
Downtown Napa: This area is budget friendly and centrally located. We decided to stay here at the Old World Inn and we do not regret it. The B&B had character, comfortable beds, good service/hospitality, delicious breakfast, and close to everything. It also had rooms with a King size bed which was the only requirement my husband had for our stay.
Calistoga: Quaint little town at the Northern part of Napa Valley. They are famous for their spas and mud baths.
St Helena/Rutherford: This is high end territory with resort type hotels. Grand and luxurious, but also costly.
Yountville: Prime location for foodies. We are talking walking distance to world renown restaurants like The French Laundry, and other great picks like Bouchon, & Redd.
What wineries to visit
Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately if it is hard for you to make decisions, there is no lack of selection when it comes to wineries to visit. But if you are a first time visitor, you should plan to visit at least 3 of these if you have the time:
Robert Mondavi – This is Napa’s first commercial winery. I must say you will be pleasantly surprised not only with the quality of the wines you will experience here (these will not be your typical supermarket wines) but also with the tour. The 75 min tour will take you through the entire process and it will not disappoint. Reservations are a must.
Castello Di Amorosa – Up on a hill and straight out of a fairy tale. This is a full scale real castle that is also a winery. This castle took 13 years to build and it even has a dungeon with authentic torture devices. The tour which is about 90 min, is extremely entertaining, and the wine has won some awards. They even offer a wine and chocolate pairing. If you do not have time for the tour this is still a great place to visit, you can simply do the tasting or get a great photo.
V. Sattui – This place is always packed with people. It is not only a great winery but they also have fantastic picnic grounds so it makes a great spot for a picnic lunch.
Sterling Vinyards – Not only do they have award wining wines but they have a gondola ride (aerial tram) that offers great views as you ride up to the winery. They also have an art gallery and offer food and wine parings.
Domaine Chandon or Domaine Carneros – You can always start your day with a little bubbly. I do not know about you but I cannot drink wine at 10 am, but a good glass of Sparkling wine? Why, yes please!!! Both of these have beautiful grounds and great tastings to start your day.
Bonus: Schramsberg Vineyards – a great alternative to the above. Schrambsberg has a great tour which takes you through the caves that were dug out in the 1980’s providing a perfect environment to store and age wine. The tasting at the end of the tour does not disappoint. Reservations are a must.
Where to eat
Napa Valley is a foodies dream come true. If you think choosing a winery was hard you won’t have an easier time choosing a place to eat. Options abound. From fantastic gourmet burgers (Including an Ahi Tuna Burger that is out of this world) at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, to a full blown 5 star dining experience at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. You certainly have something to fit every budget and every taste. There are many exceptional choices, and to mention them all would take way to long, so here is a short list of restaurants to consider:
Thomas Keller’s restaurants – Not everyone will want or can afford the experience at The French Laundry. This award winning dining experience will cost you $310 a person before wine, for 9 courses, served over approx. 5 hours. And the waiting list to get in is no joke. If you still want to experience the taste of Thomas Keller’s cuisine at a fraction of the cost then you might want to consider Bouchon Bistro. For an even more casual restaurant, you can opt for Ad Hoc ,just be warned that they serve only one thing a night. Therefore, you may want to check out the daily menu to be sure they are serving something you want. Or you could skip the restaurant dining all together and simply opt for breakfast or a sweet treat at the bakery right next door to Bouchon.
Celedon – This eatery is in Downtown Napa and has an amazing eclectic menu plus their outdoor patio is perfect.
Taylor’s Automatic Refresher/Gotts – this is one of my husbands favorites. It is Napa’s version of a 1950 style roadside burger joint. The ahi tuna burger is ginormous and absolutely divine, and did I mention they serve wine?
Redd – You could probably pick something here with your eyes closed and be happy with the selection. Redd has a creative menu with influences from Asia, Eurpoe and Mexico. It is Sofisticated and modern but still has a relaxed feel.
Bottega – this is chef Michael Chiarello’s restaurant. He showcases bold Italian flavors with a refined twist.
Morimoto – this is chef Morimoto’s restaurant and it is renowed for creative Japanese fare.
Oxbow Public Market – you can skip the high end restaurants and head to this vibrant market located in Downtown Napa. It is like a food court with a California flair. It is a good place to grab a quick meal and find a few things to bring home.
Other must do’s most of which are non-alcoholic in nature
diRosa Museum – This place is amazing. It has over 200 acres of indoor and outdoor gallery space and showcases art in a variety of mediums. The art is quirky and the grounds are beautiful. This is certainly and experience you do not want to miss. Even my husband who does not like museums enjoyed some of the art displayed here.
View Napa from the air and on bike – Napa Valley Bike Tours offers this great combo. You can see Napa from the air and then ride a bike through the countryside while visiting some of the smaller wineries. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate for us, so we had to miss the Balloon ride (my husband was secretly happy about this). We did do the bike tour in the rain and visited some outstanding smaller wineries like Robert Sinskey Vineyards. They did very graciously offer to take us in a van but we are stubborn and by God we booked the bike tour and we were going to ride the bikes.
Tour a factory – in the nearby city of Fairfield you can tour Jelly Belly (yup the candy), and SePay Groves Olive Oil. There are many places where you can taste different olive oils some of which are infused with flavors. Tasting different olive oils and vinegars is a must and surprisingly we brought home more olive oil than wine.
Visit the Tennessee Fainting goats and the “Old Faithful” Geyser for a view of the eruption of steam and scalding water that sprays about 60 to 90 feet in the air about every 30 minutes.
- Pick the right season to avoid crowds and to get the experience you are looking for.
- Napa wineries are getting busier and busier even during non peak seasons. Make sure to reserve your wine tasting in advance if it is a place you truly want to visit. Otherwise you risk being turned away. Additionally some wineries function on appointment only tastings.
- Take a tour or 2 or 3. It is a great way to stay away from the crowds at tastings and you will learn something from it. If you do not want to plan your visits you can even hire companies that arrange to take you to wineries by coach, limo or even by bike. These companies are a great way to explore smaller wineries.
- Share a tasting. Tastings can get expensive and it is totally acceptable to share them.
- Take time to explore something other than wine. Napa Valley has art, olive oil, markets, champagne, and great dining.